Early in my career, I worked with emotionally disturbed teens in a residential treatment center. Most of the kids were in the foster care system and had lived with several foster families. A majority of them acted out regularly.
My co-workers and I were all in our twenties and most of us were fresh out of college. We had no previous experience. And yet, we succeeded to meet our goal most of the time-to get the kids’ behavior under control and place them in a family environment..
Here’s how we did so – we created a highly structured environment. We had a point system in which kids earned levels of responsibility or privileges, a.k.a. behavior modification. The center had a self-contained school environment comprised of the residents only. We’d take the kids on many recreational outings. When the kids did well, they earned more time with other residents.
The tight structure we implemented seemed to work well for the kids. They tended to comply and earn their points. Each child stayed with us for about 12-18 months on average and then made a quick transition to a family environment. We were thrilled with those results.
Yet, most of the kids disrupted their family environments within the first few months home.
What went wrong at home?
Surely, we thought, their parents were the problem. But I now know, after years of experience and research, that we were doing something wrong at the residential treatment center.
We were correct that children who suffer from reactive attachment disorder thrive in a highly structured environment. Residential treatment centers certainly provide external structure. Yet, they rarely create the emotional foundation required for kids to do well with their families.
Most residential treatment centers operate the same way I experienced them as a young professional several years ago.
Here’s the problem:
Residential treatment centers aren’t family environments. They don’t effectively address the attachment problems between children and their parents. Kids with reactive attachment disorder reject trust and closeness, especially with mother figures. So, that’s exactly what they need in treatment. However, residential treatment centers have a revolving staff schedule. Kids don’t develop close relationships with the staff. In fact, the kids develop superficial relationships with staff in order to manipulate them. Kids with reactive attachment disorder are extremely skilled at doing so.
To make things worse, we rewarded the kids with the chance to hang out with others who shared their distorted thinking. They only validated one another and made things worse.
Many parents come to me, frustrated and burnt out. They spend time and/or money for their kids to go to residential treatment centers. When they get home, their kids are just the same and families continue to suffer. I hope we can come together as professionals to help break this cycle.
Learn how we give kids the tools to do well in a family environment at IACD. Watch the video “What to Do if Your Child Has Attachment Disorder” and invite Forrest to speak to your organization.
Image courtesy of winnond at FreeDigitalPhotos.net